Great text. Beautiful text. Full of instruction. Full of hope.
We read it, and we just know we’re supposed to shout “Hallelujah!”
I mean, I think Paul is trying to get us worked up. He’s throwing out these questions, and we know the answers to these questions: they’re rhetorical questions. We know the responses. We know it is “Yes, Lord, yes!” We know it is “Hallelujah!”
I almost read Paul here like one of those great call-and-response preachers.
If you find any comfort from being in Christ…… Yes, Lord, Yes……
If Christ’s love brings any encouragement…… Hallelujah! It does!……
If you experience true companionship with the Spirit…… Yes, preach it!……
If his tenderness and mercy fills your heart…… Amen!……
Paul’s getting us riled up. We know the answer.
It’s a powerful text. It’s a beautiful text. It’s a text we know has meaning.
Do We Identify?
But it’s not a text we really identify with, is it?
I mean…… Church is something we do. Faith is…… well, it’s there. Right?
Paul is addressing some deep issues here: Where is your source of comfort? Where is your source of hope? Where is the grounding of your life?
If we’re going to be honest about it, I……I just don’t know if we’re there.
I mean, as a Christian, sometimes I don’t know. I don’t mean I have questions, I mean: I don’t find comfort. I don’t find strength. I don’t find hope. I am often weak and broken, and the darkness is closing in around me.
And I think the reason is that we have pawned off the mysteries of Christ for a nice, neat package we call “salvation.”
Here’s what I mean.
Saved vs. Discipleship?
I mean, just this past week I pulled into one of the clergy parking spots at a hospital in a nearby city. As I rolled up the windows, I noticed I had parked next to a church van. Their slogan—along with the church name—was written on the door. It said: “Save — Teach — Send.”
We think it’s our responsibility to get them saved? But it’s not our responsibility to get them saved! Only God has the power to save!
In the Great Commission, Jesus doesn’t tell his followers to “save all the nations.” He tells us to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19).
In the Gospels, when people have an encounter with Jesus, Jesus doesn’t respond by saying “Pray this little prayer and then you will be saved.” What does Jesus ask them? What does Jesus do? He invites them to become followers. He invites them to become disciples.
You see, this is the thing that I notice. The thing I’m thinking about is this: Somewhere along the way, we’ve traded a lifetime of following of Jesus—of being a disciple of Jesus—for a one-time experience of Jesus.
And so we have people, and maybe they come to church, or maybe they come to a rally, or a revival, or a concert, or a funeral, or a wedding, or……I don’t know where. But they have an experience of Jesus. A real experience of Jesus. And they know that love that is boundless. And they see hope where there was no hope. And they witness the dead parts of their life being transformed, and new life abounds. They feel renewed—born again.
What do we as a church do?
We say congratulations. You’re in the club.
Now, we want you to tithe. We want you to serve on boards and committees. We want you to teach Sunday School. We want you to support the system, the institution.
That’s a pretty far distance from where Jesus began. That has a frighteningly different focus than when Jesus invites his hearers to follow.
When Jesus calls individuals—like in Mark 1:17, when he sees Simon and Andrew—he tends to simply say “Follow me.”
Or like when Jesus encountners Nathanael (in John 1:46), Nathanael doesn’t even really believe Jesus can be all that significant. He’s had an encounter with Christ, but he’s not anything close to what we’d call a “believer.” What does Jesus say to him? “Come with me, and see for yourself.”
When Jesus calls us—when we read in the Gospels of the extraordinary encounters ordinary people have with Jesus—what Jesus invites them to is discipleship. It is to be followers. Some accept, and some do not. Discipleship, after all, is a rather costly requirement imposed by Jesus.
But for you to appreciate that, I’ve got to explain what discipleship means in the New Testament. Because when we think of discipleship today, we think of small groups, and Bible studies, and accountability partners, and attending worship, and we think of all of these things that the church has created and to which we have applied the label of discipleship.
But at the time when Jesus walked on this earth, to be a disciple was to be an apprentice, in the most extreme sense. The way you were a disciple is you lost your identity. You gave up everything about yourself and who you are. What you like and what you don’t. What you desire and what you hate. You gave up all of that.
If you wanted to be a disciple of someone, you dressed the way they dressed, you followed them around, you went the places that they went, you ate the food that they ate, drank the water that they drank. You did all the things that they did, even if you didn’t understand why.
What you tried to do is you tried to imitate them, as perfectly as possible. Not to impersonate them or pretend that you actually were them. But you tried to become as much like them as possible. Because that is how you learned a trade or a skill, especially from a Rabbi. You learned it by doing everything exactly the way the person teaching you does it.
And only once you yourself become a master is there freedom to move beyond that. But brothers and sisters, I’ve got to tell you, we will not become masters of Christianity—of Christ-like-ness—not in this world. Not in this lifetime.
We can only aspire to be imitators. And more often, we look like false, failed, fractured impersonators. At best, we are usually Chinese knock-offs of Christ.
You know what I’m talking about, right? I mean, everybody’s seen them. But I looked some up anyway, for kicks and giggles (I guess). I found:
the Michaelsoft Binbows operating system
Stars & Bucks coffeehouse
6-Eleven ——(that one makes me laugh every time)
This is what we look like compared with Christ!
But what is it that Paul calls us to here in Philippians? ——Not knock offs, not impersonators. He calls us to be imitators of Christ. And how do we do that?
To tell us that, Paul quotes scripture. He reaches back to the oracle of a prophet called Isaiah, a man who lived hundreds of years before Christ. But a man whose words Jesus saw himself fulfilling, even from the very beginning of his ministry.
He speaks of someone who empties himself, who gives up everything he has, everything he should has a right to. Someone who lets go of his ambitions and his rights and his desires and his dislikes. He becomes something else.
Jesus becomes something else.
You know what he becomes, don’t you? Jesus becomes our apprentice. Jesus becomes an apprentice of humanity, so that he can walk with us, talk with us, show us a better way to be us, and ultimately to redeem us from our brokenness and our failings. What love! What hope! What promise!
Jesus joins with us, becomes like us, so we can become like him. And that, Paul says, is what we are called to here: to be like Christ.
To Be Like Christ
So what does that look like?
It looks like unity. It looks like selflessness. It looks like humility. It looks like love. (That’s Philippians 2, verses 2-3)
That is our calling. Because Christ is done apprenticing with us. And now……it’s our turn to be Christ’s apprentice.
We’ve got to get past this problem that we face in the church. We have got to get beyond how we’ve so overemphasized a singular experience of Christ, and remember again that the life of Christ—the way of being Christian—is actually to follow. To disciple.
That is our calling.